The Lotus Elise is in the running to be this year’s Autocar Awards Readers’ Champion. Each day a different member of the Autocar team will champion one of the 17 cars, but only one can be the Icon of Icons and it’s up to you to decide - vote here.
While it is undoubtedly the case that certain cars in this list have mobilised entire nations, the same cannot be said for this very impractical two-seater sports car.
And while others still have become cultural artefacts, either through a starring role in a famous film or for having transported so many of us throughout our childhoods, that isn’t true here. In fact, on the subject of the Lotus Elise – a car few people will have sat in and far fewer still will ever own – all that I have to recommend it over the likes of the Fiat 500 and the Volkswagen Beetle is that it has consistently been one of the best driver’s cars at any money ever since it was first introduced 23 years ago. With that in mind, does any of the other stuff even matter?
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That isn’t to say there is nothing else to recommend the Elise, for not only did it wrench one of this country’s most treasured automotive marques from certain oblivion, it is also innovative and interesting. Its chassis, for instance, is made from aluminium extrusions that are glued together (if you have ever squeezed Play-Doh through a mould, you have made an extrusion). The car is therefore very stiff and very light. Although later models have invariably grown heavier, the 1996 original weighed just 725kg. A modern Formula 1 car with a driver weighs more.
The fact that the Elise has lived on for this long with only two major upgrades during its lifetime tells us something heartening: that the simple pleasure of driving an interactive sports car along a winding road is as appealing now as it ever was. And although its technical blueprint was determined two and a half decades ago, the Elise’s basic recipe is one that will only become more apposite as time rolls on.
After all, when the car we drive every day is powered by electric motors with a single-speed transmission and fully synthesised steering, and when it is heavy with lithium ion batteries and communications hardware, we will want more and more for the car we keep in the garage to be light, small, nimble, powered by a buzzy petrol engine, for it to have a manual transmission and unassisted steering and an amount of performance that can be tapped into on increasingly congested roads. The Lotus Elise is more the sports car of the future than it is the sports car of the past.
Aside from its lack of mass and its very detailed steering, the Elise is so brilliant to drive because of simple, straightforward and uncomplicated chassis tuning. Its springs are not unnecessarily firm, which means each wheel is free to rise and fall in time with undulations in the road surface. The damping is of such a high quality, meanwhile, that the body remains composed and level, so that whatever the road, the Elise is exquisite to drive. And that, surely, is all that really matters.